Verlaine Returns To Write His Own Rules

The Los Angeles Times, May 15,1996

by Richard Cromelin

Like its spiritual forbearer, the Velvet Underground, the New York band Television was vastly more influential than the brevity and low commercial showing of its recording career would suggest. The group demonstrated that high risk aspirations could be bonded with a fundamental rock approach, and its exalted guitar interplay echoes today in the instrument's primacy in alternative rock. Television also keyed New York's mid-70s musical uprising, which produced such forces as Patti Smith, the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie. But while those acts rode the band's wave to fame and fortune, Television broke up in 1978 after two albums. Leader Tom Verlaine - despite eight subsequent solo records and a brief Television reunion in 1992 - has remained elusive, but the singer-guitarist's profile began to rise recently when he hooked up with Smith, whose return to concerts and recording benefited from his distinctive contributions. Verlaine took advantage of the Smith connection Monday at the Viper Room, playing an exceedingly rare show of his own with the backing of two Smith band mates, drummer Jay Dee Daugherty and bassist Tony Shanahan, and with occasional colleague Jimmy Ripp on second guitar.

Verlaine is a pure free agent these days, and he approached the show as someone with nothing to sell, no script to stick to, no agenda beyond stretching out. He pretty much ignored the signature songs whose riffs would have guaranteed roars of recognition, instead addressing fans drawn to his improvisational powers and his pursuit of mystery and possibility. Like Smith, Verlaine brings a poetic sensibility to the rock aesthetic, but his is a more introspective rarified approach, and it inevitably leads to the moments when only his guitar-led explorations will capture the emotional essence he's after. On Monday, Verlaine - cutting much the same gaunt, ascetic figure he did in the early years -offered everything from choppy shuffles to rhapsodic ballads, garage-band stomp to meditations that emerged like ghosts from his deliberate tuning-up interludes. One such exploration flowered into a long raga-like solo that culminated in the taut, interlocking patterns of "Marquee Moon," the title song of the first Television album. It was nice to arrive at familar terrain, but the evening's real rewards had already come, with the return of a visionary artist with his creativity and energy undimmed.